On The Streets & In The Underground: The Campaign To Unshackle London’s Itinerant Musicians:

How do you react when you see someone playing the violin, guitar or saxophone in a tube station? Pause to listen, take a photo and then leave a few coins? Or perhaps (more likely), hurry off to catch your train, with your attention focused on your i-Pad? As journalist Gary Moskowitz has pointed out on “moreintelligentlife.com”, the capital’s commuters are always in such a rush that the “lone busker is lucky to get even a sideways glance”. This is partly due to the negative image they have among much of the public – that they are asking for money on the pretext of playing music.

 The way to combat this perception (suggests “Mike The Minstrel” on squidoo.com), is to ensure that they look like a genuine musician, not a beggar. He advises them to pay careful attention to how they dress, the way they behave and their body language; “Smile, connect with your audience, look them in the eye, vary your repertoire, believe in yourself”. Busking, in his opinion “has a lot in common with a sales job”. The publisher and ex-busker Stewart Ferris agrees: “Stand up! Don’t be shy and sit down to play!” (he exhorts on money magpie.com). Furthermore, “Play and sing tunes that are bright, “toe-tapping” and universally popular (such as by the Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel), keep your appearance clean and (more applicable to shopping centres than the underground), try to have someone to collect the money: If you attract a crowd, the worst thing is if they disperse immediately you’ve finished”.

According to “vocalist.org.uk”, a busker is now defined as “any form of entertainer such as solo singers or musicians, one-man bands with multiple instruments, duos or trios, magicians and clowns”. Their preferred venues are “parks, fairs, subways, train stations, bus depots, street corners or any open space where there are enough passer-bys”. The “basic rules” are that buskers must not  “cause or promote a public disturbance, block pathways and fire exits, impede traffic or play louder than the volume limit set by the local authority – but “Vocalist” also acknowledges that there has been a steady increase in regulations controlling where and when buskers are allowed to perform. This – says the Greater London Authority’s (GLA) press officer, Ben McKnight – has become of considerable concern to Mayor Boris Johnson, who consequently, when he inaugurated London’s annual “Gig Busking Competition” on April 9th, also launched a new “Back Busking” campaign. The Mayor is “worried that some parts of the capital now operate mandatory licensing charges and can impose potentially large fines, making it financially prohibitive for many musicians to perform.”

Johnson’s objective is to “make London the most “busker-friendly” city in the world – which is why he recently arranged a meeting with representatives from all 32 of the capital’s boroughs to discuss precisely this issue. McKnight concedes that, while “some local authorities are relatively amenable to buskers just turning up to play at (for example) shopping centres”, others have “introduced rules which seem quite harsh and draconian”. He referred specifically to the High Court judgement on 11th March that it was lawful for Camden Council to impose a “busking licence” across the whole of the borough. Lawyers for the “Keep Streets Live Campaign” have confirmed that they will appeal against this decision.

The bureaucratic procedures for obtaining a London Underground Busking Licence are especially daunting. The Transport For London (TFL) scheme was set up in March 2003 but – as “streetsgotalent.com” has noted – the demand very quickly outstripped the number of licences available. There are, states the Tfl website, “up to 39 pitches across 25 central London stations which are clearly defined by a semi-circular floor graphic and a background advert on the wall”. Licensed buskers, it declares “have a unique audience of around 3.5 million Tube passengers every day” who thereby “enjoy more than 100,000 hours of live music being performed legitimately on our branded pitches” (which are sponsored by companies such as Coca Cola, Capital FM and Carling). TfL is clearly proud that “the lure of performing on the Tube has attracted some ‘big names’ – among them, The Libertines, Julian Lloyd-Webber and Seasick Steve”.

Gary Moskowitz has estimated that there are around 300 buskers “active” at any one time on the London Underground system. The male-to-female ratio “is about three to one”. In order to reserve a “pitch”, he asserts, applicants must call an automated phone service (0845 330 9878) on Tuesday mornings up to two weeks in advance. They can find themselves waiting in a queue for at least 90 minutes. Once they’ve succeeded in obtaining their licence (worn around the neck when performing), however, they can renew it annually on an indefinite basis, unless they “substantially change their act”, in which case they have to re-apply. The best Central London underground locations for buskers are, it appears, two at Green Park, two at Tottenham Court Road, one at Piccadilly and one at Leicester Square: “If a busker turns up late, the previous busker is entitled to stay for the next two-hour time slot – which can create a tense situation”.

Is busking financially worthwhile? Guitarist Wayne Myers, writing in the “Guardian”, has concluded that “it isn’t remotely lucrative – but then no-one sane goes into music for the money”. By contrast, keyboard player Ramon Fontecilla told Moskowitz that, although it’s “not always pleasant, it’s better than an office job” and that he “earns more doing this than from giving piano lessons”.






Filed under: Music & Dance, Society | Posted on May 19th, 2014 by Colin D Gordon

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